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by Daniel Canty

Robots are our incomplete doubles. We program them to build our cars and appliances. Sometimes they travel to untreadable terrains for us: the craters of volcanoes, the remotest reaches of the sea, Antarctica, the moon, or Mars. Robots are always the best volunteers, slaves to our own pretend objectivity. They are the eyes (and deficient brains) of intricate surveillance systems; the dispatchers of boats, trains, and airplanes; the orchestrators of mechanical ballets of sprinkler systems and radio antennae arrays. At annual artificial intelligence summits, robots push boxes or ping-pong balls across conference hall floors, bash each other to pieces in mock sumo matches, and perform similarly limited (and esoteric) feats. We take as our birth privilege the right to put the unborn to work, however futile that work may be: lest we forget, Karel Capek, when he baptized the word "robot" in his 1920 play R.U.R., forged the term from the Slavic roots for "work" and "slavery." To this day, robots do what we tell them, and nothing beyond what we ourselves can understand. Indeed, whatever they do, robots have limited selves: it is a fact that many of them, rather than having arms or legs or eyes, are arms or legs or eyes. And even though a few of them have won chess tournaments against world-champion masters, they still can't quite get the hang of Go.

By human standards, the "lives" of robots range from the gruelling to the audacious, the futile to the functional. But whether constructed to be proletarians or adventure travellers, robots always embody splinters of ourselves. They are functional incarnations of our own potentialities, and reflections of the way in which we think about these potentialities.

Robots imitate what we are, and we are what they imitate, one completing the other.


The nineteenth century put our souls to sleep and woke us to our nightmare selves. The purr and drone of machines worked itself into the din of cities. Faded into our unconscious, it became the secret accompaniment to our heartbeats. A silent dispatch: Make the body electric and telegraph God he is dead.
- Seymour Haltertorne, The Last Days of God (1918)
Mary Shelley miscarried and dreamt the birth of an unborn man. Frankenstein's creature, made of the unresurrected dead, was the son of no mother, in a world abandoned by God. Borne into this abandoned reality on an electrical jolt, he was denied the given love of the womb and skies.
- Byron Loneter, After Human: A History of Nobody (2003)

The physicalist school of artificial intelligence is perhaps the dominant metaphysics of our time, because it dreams of making us (and our bodies and souls) a consequence, or an intricate ornament, of an abstract description, raised to the power of a prime mover.

To the proponent of physicalism, the fundamental difference between us, our machines, and the plants and insects that surround us is simply one of complexity. We are wetware waiting to decrypt the arcanum of our own programming, and although the godly engineer is gone and his blueprint for humankind burned, he has left his hardware and code behind for us to crack.

In other words, in the physicalist's world-to-come, the difference between being and the imitation of being is not one of nature, but of detail. Consciousness is only the most clever of all imitation games, and, past a certain point, only the rules of the game count. There is no more winning or losing: what we are is only what we seem to be.

Take, as one possible example, the robots of the Walter Phillips Gallery's Sentient Circuitry exhibit presented within this issue of HorizonZero. These "useless" robots are so many dispatches from the utopia of the physicalist, wishful incarnations of the possible worlds described by the prophets of artificial intelligence. In fact, what their artist-creators claim about these robots is often defeated by the physical evidence - the robots themselves. These machines exist as metaphorical incarnations rather than complete actualizations of the discourses surrounding them. Yet, no matter what they actually do or say, these machines constantly remind us of a simple truth: that, although robots provide an incomplete description of ourselves, there is, in this description, an undeniable beauty.

The robots of American Automata, a series of nineteenth century fictional beings that might seem perfectly at home in a B-movie, tell us much the same thing. These automata of the early American imagination, orphans of Mary Shelley's original loss - the miscarriage that led her to dream the birth of an unborn man - in their time mapped out a zone of disquiet between the evidence of our bodily presence in the world and the apparent absence of God. If that absence no longer strikes us as quite so fearful today, then perhaps we can still see in these yellowed magazine clippings the beginnings of a more contemporary disquiet.

The cyborgs of The Uncanny, a recent exhibition and artbook from the Vancouver Art Gallery, are the spiritual siblings of the imaginary artificial beings of the past. They project us into a terrible - or at least unsettling - future (or is it the present?) whose dreams and nightmares are closer than we think to those that haunted us before, having jumped off the page to crawl (sometimes quite literally) under our skins.

The difference between what was once imagined and what now exists (and what that makes us imagine) is, perhaps, only a question of detail. But truth, after all, is in the details. What we seem to be is not what we are, but what we think we are, and what we choose to imitate.

Daniel Canty is Director of HorizonZero.

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